“An English Wood” – A Story

The week in pictures: 6 November 2015 - Telegraph

Photo: telegraph.co.uk

Martins was lost, and he knew it, though he couldn’t decide if knowing it made it better or worse.

Of course, he couldn’t be truly lost. This was southern England, in the 21st Century, not some endless African savannah, or colossal American mountain range. He was in a wood. An English wood. A bit spooky, perhaps, as the evening came on. But hardly dangerous.

No need to be alarmed, then, no need to send up a flare (even if he had one, which he didn’t), no need to worry about the dead battery on his phone. Except that, he had been looking for the path back to the car park for three hours now, and he couldn’t seem to find it, and the wood, he knew, wasn’t that big. He should be out of it by now, back at the road, or at least in some field or other, trying not to trip over the sheep.

At one point he thought he had reached some kind of boundary fence, and through it he had seen, a few yards away, two horses, one white, one black. They had looked at him for a long time, and then wandered over, no doubt expecting him to give them food. He didn’t have any, and stupidly found himself explaining this to them, and apologising. But the horses just went on gazing at him, neither pleased nor annoyed, and when he realised that the field in which they stood was completely enclosed by the wood, and therefore did not provide a way out of it, he walked away, and was somewhat unnerved to discover, when he turned back a few minutes later, that the horses were still there, watching him.

He thought that locating the track leading away from the main gate to the field might bring him inevitably back to the road, but after about half a mile it disappeared into a maze of other tracks, and he was lost once again. He began to wonder if he was going in circles.

When he left the car park earlier that afternoon he had climbed along a path clearly waymarked, with occasional signs indicating the wildlife one might expect to see, and a map of the valley, with “You Are Here” and a large arrow written prominently in red. Likewise, though it was a weekday in February and the sky was overcast, there had been other people about, mostly, like Martins, of a certain age, though they had all said hello to him with varying degrees of enthusiasm as he passed them on the footpath.

But now he could see no markings anywhere, and all the people seemed to have disappeared hours ago, as soon as the already feeble daylight had started to leach from the sky. Martins cursed. He was dressed sensibly, he had his waterproofs, good boots, a bottle of water, even half a Twix. He considered retracing his steps back to the field with the horses in it, and spending the night there, if necessary. He wasn’t in bad shape for a man of his age. A night out of doors probably wouldn’t kill him. Whoever owned the horses would no doubt visit some time tomorrow to feed them, and he could reveal himself, allay their alarm by apologising in a classically embarrassed English way, and they would both laugh, and the stranger would take him back to his car, make sure he was all right, was there anyone he could phone? Perhaps he might like some coffee, or a bite to eat? And Martins would say, No, that’s very kind, thank you. I’m just glad to be out of that wood.

But of course he couldn’t retrace his steps back to the field. He couldn’t retrace his steps anywhere. He was lost.

There was a soft creaking away to his left, that made him turn suddenly. He thought at first it was a lorry or coach changing gear as it came down the hill, and that the sound might somehow guide him back towards the car park, but there was something about the sound – some kind of agency to it, Martins thought – that he felt to be unnatural, and he realised he was really frightened now, in a way he could not remember being for many years, and as he realised this he realised also that it was now almost completely dark.

Of course, his eyes had been able to adjust gradually, so he was hardly blind, but he always forgot how quickly day turned to night in winter, and he had forgotten something else, too, because he had not expected to need it. His torch.

He stood there for a moment in the darkness, thinking. He felt like shouting, or crying, but did neither. The thought nagged at him that he must try and stay quiet, that he mustn’t attract attention, that he wasn’t alone – and that whoever else was in the valley with him was watching, and, in some way that he couldn’t fathom, wished him harm.

He shook his head, rubbed at his shoulder. He ate the rest of the Twix, and drank some water. And then he sat on the ground, and waited.




dark forest - After Dark Photo (24759747) - Fanpop

Photo: fanpop.com

Personally, I like the idea of hygge, the Danish word that doesn’t quite translate into English but roughly means “cosy, with candles, and beers, and warm fires and stuff, for when it’s cold outside, which it is in Denmark a lot”.

This Christmas in the UK, hygge has become the latest thing the marketing men say we should all be into, and books on the subject are selling like hot brunkage.

But I’m rather pleased to discover that there is an anti-hygge, an opposite of hygge, called uhygge (and please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I’ve only just mastered hygge). Apparently it’s to do with that disturbing feeling you get in, say, a wood at night – that something is watching you, that you’re trespassing somehow, that you ought to leave, quick, and get home for some reassuring hygge.

Anyway, this article from the Guardian has more on the subject of uhygge. Don’t have nightmares…

Twelfth Night, Odin & the King of the Bean

The Bean King (The King Drinks) - Jacob Jordaens

The Bean King (The King Drinks), by Jacob Jordaens (1638)

Today, the 5th January, marks Twelfth Night, a date that, if they think about it at all, most people nowadays associate with two things – the Shakespeare play of the same name, and taking down the Christmas decorations.

But in pre-industrial Britain, the celebrations of Christmas once lasted the full Twelve Days, although there was some disagreement as to whether Christmas Day itself was counted as one of these – if it wasn’t, then the 6th January, Epiphany, became the Twelfth Day, though the 5th January was still called Twelfth Night, confusingly. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, in 1752, made matters more complicated still, as many people persisted in marking the old dates rather than the new ones. It is for this reason that many wassailing traditions in England are still held on January 17th – Old Twelfth Night.

What’s certain is that Christmastide was once regarded, across Medieval and Early Modern Europe, as a dangerous time, when Odin’s Wild Hunt rode through the sky, werewolves stalked the woods, and the dead came back to haunt the living. For all that, though, it was still no doubt a welcome break from work before the agricultural year began again on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany). People would elect an Epiphany King, or “King of the Bean” (in France the equivalent figure was called l’Abbé de la Malgouverné – the Abbot of Unreason), a “Mock King” tradition that goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, a festival held from the 17th to the 24th December, when a slave would be chosen to be King, and the usual order overturned, with men dressing as women, folk wearing animal masks, and feasting and general licentiousness prevailing.

The Mock King’s medieval descendant, the King of the Bean, was chosen by placing a bean and a pea in a cake called the Twelfth Cake. Whoever found the bean in their slice became King, and they were crowned and robed for the duration of the feast, and the woman who found the pea became the Twelfth Day Queen (if a woman found the bean, she had the right to name the King; if a man found the pea, he chose the Queen).

In France, the Twelfth Cake was called the gateau des Rois, and, when it had been cut into slices, a small child hidden under the table was asked whom each should go to. He would randomly nominate people from the assembled company until all pieces of the cake had been accounted for, and the finder of the bean became the Epiphany King.

In England, the King of the Bean ceremony has, to the best of my knowledge, long since disappeared, though Twelfth Cakes continued to be made and sold well into the Nineteenth Century, before the decline of Twelfthtide celebrations, and the increasing popularity of the Christmas cake, finally did for them.

It’s a shame, though – personally, I don’t think one should need much excuse for cake, so I’m all for reviving this particular tradition…


The legend of Mother Leakey

Every town, I think, should have its own ghost. The town of Minehead in Somerset has at least one – her name is Mother Leakey, and this is her story. She died in 1634, and soon afterwards was seen whistling up storms that destroyed her son’s shipping business, strangling her grandson in the cradle for good measure. Then she appeared to the local doctor while he was out walking – she sat on a stile and refused to move, and when he pushed past her, she gave him a hefty kick up the backside. Such was her infamy that, long after her death, Sir Walter Scott wrote about her, and the cartoonist George Cruickshank drew her.

In 1637, a Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate the appearances, chaired by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It eventually concluded that there was no substance in the story, and it was dismissed. Even so, tales of Mother Leakey have persisted, and within living memory the old woman was still blamed if there was bad weather in Minehead. Quite what might have made her so vengeful is unclear, however…!

Kingley Vale, yew trees and Viking ghosts

Photo: westsussex.info

When we were students in Sussex in the early Nineties, my friends and I would sometimes drive up to Kingley Vale, just outside Chichester, on the South Downs, to work off our indolence with a bracing walk, and possibly an extra strong cigarette or two. On one memorable occasion we were surprised by members of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, who drove up to our van in the car park one Saturday evening, and shone their torches in our faces, on the spurious grounds that the van was a diesel and someone had been stealing similar ones in the area. Personally I think they were just bored of rounding up drunks in Chichester that night. But I digress.

Kingley Vale is a National Nature Reserve and SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), and is looked after by Natural England. As well as being a diverse habitat for flora and fauna, it contains 14 scheduled ancient monuments, including an Iron Age earthwork (Goosehill Camp), the remains of a Roman temple, and, at the top of the Vale, on Bow Hill, four Bronze Age barrows. These are colloquially known as the Devil’s Humps, or otherwise the Kings’ Graves, and are said to be the burial site of Viking lords defeated by local men in the Ninth Century. Further down the hill is a large area of yew woodland, with some trees thought to be over five hundred years old, and the ghosts of the dead Vikings are supposed to haunt them. Having been there myself after dark, I can testify that this is indeed a spooky and atmospheric place at night, the trunks and branches of the old yew trees twisted into strange and wild shapes by the wind, and the passing of the years.

Photo: Jessica Ann

The Ghosts of Pluckley

Pluckley is a village of about a thousand souls, near Ashford in Kent.

It’s mentioned in the Domesday Book, and the Dering Manuscript was discovered here – the earliest manuscript of a Shakespeare play still in existence, it is of Henry IV (Parts I & II) and is thought to date from c. 1613. More recently the village has been used as the location for the TV adaptation of The Darling Buds of May.

My family and I holidayed here back in the early Eighties, and stayed on a turkey farm. Every evening for supper we had turkey in some shape or form, till it became a bit like that pastiche of The Twelve Days of Christmas:

On the eighth day of Christmas the dog ran off for shelter / I served up turkey pancakes and a glass of Alka Seltzer.

There was another family staying there who were very Welsh and very proud of it – nothing wrong with that, except they demanded to know why, if we were from Somerset, we didn’t speak like the Wurzels…?

Anyway, what really spooked me, as a young kid still in short trousers, was that Pluckley was known (and still is) as the Most Haunted Village in England.

My parents even obtained a map, indicating the various ghosts (there are around twelve in all) and where in the village they were to be found.

None were located on the farm, but still I remember sleeping very badly that week (perhaps it was all that turkey), and was glad to get home again.

Many of the ghosts are associated with the Dering family (from whom the Dering Manuscript takes its name), who were local landowners for centuries. There is a Red Lady, a White Lady, several phantom dogs, a highwayman, a soldier, a miller, a tramp, a farmer who did away with himself, and – my own particular favourite – a gypsy woman whose pipe set fire to the haystack on which she was sleeping.

If you’re in the area, go and investigate – you’re braver than me! But just remember, if you hear any strange wailings or noises in the vicinity, it could just be someone had a turkey curry the night before…


I love tales of buried treasure.

I think they appeal to the love of mystery – and possibly also greed – in all of us.

One such concerns the village of Broomfield in Somerset (pictured above – see also Why Witches? Part Three), where an underground castle is said to contain riches, and the door to it can only be located by the light of the full moon.

All attempts to dig it up have been thwarted, however, by the spirits who guard it, scaring off treasure hunters with their ghostly cries.

A local doctor once apparently located the door, but when he tried to open it, its guardians nearly carried off his servant, and he had to place a copy of the Bible on the man’s head before pulling him to safety.

The door closed, and disappeared, thereafter moving its position so it could not be found again…